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So what’s wrong with classical music anyway?

April 1, 2006

I’ve just finished reading a book that I thought I would find inspiriting, but instead left me feeling rather depressed. The volume in question is In Defence of Classical Music, by Andrew Ford, a composer and presenter of the ABC’s The Music Show on Radio National.

Andrew starts off with an attempt to debunk some of the prevailing myths, as he sees them, about classical music: you need a special education to understand classical music, people who like classical music are snobs, symphony concerts are intimidating, opera is highbrow.

Yep, heard all of those.

Then he goes on to discuss some individual classical composers, and has some interesting things to say about Beethoven and Brahms, though he seems to have cloth ears when it comes to Sibelius. Finally, he discusses some of his own compositions — none of which is familiar to me — to illustrate what a composer, including the ‘greats’, might be trying to achieve in writing the works that they do.

It’s all very well as far as it goes, but it left me feeling most unsatisfied. I’ve maybe been unlucky in my life choices, but in my thirty-plus years of listening to music of various kinds with varying degrees of seriousness, I’ve met very few people who actually like classical music. This puzzles me. Music is an instinct: its roots are dance and song, which are present in every known culture, past and present. In the western tradition, it emerges from that foundation as an argument and an exemplar for beauty, grace and truth.

Western classical music, in the broad, embraces a vast range of expressive idioms from medieval plainsong to material scored for multiple computers. Not all of it is great: in fact, most of it isn’t. But the core of the classical repertoire — the great works of the medieval, baroque, classical, romantic, neo-classical and modern genres — represents the pinnacle of the west’s aesthetic and artistic achievement, without ignoring or denigrating its accomplishments in literature, fine art and architecture.

Ford is right where he contends that the great compositions of classical music do not yield all their insights at once. Beethoven’s String Quartets are heavy and dense beneath their superfical (superficial!) beauty: it is said that a single lifetime is not enough to plumb their depths. Bartok, Messiaen and Britten do require effort. The listener has to do some work, too: the composers are leading you through daunting sonic landscapes and you have to work almost as hard as they do if you are to follow them.

But not all classical music is so confronting. Purcell, Handel, Schubert, Mozart are the supreme melodists and harmonists of all time. It takes no effort at all to respond to and love their music. It’s as easy as having a pair of ears.

I take issue, though, with Ford’s argument that classical music’s meaning is sealed within the score: that it means only what it is, not something extrinsic to it. There is something of the ‘original instruments’ argument here — one which extends back to Arturo Toscanini, and which was refuted in every passage of every work conducted by Toscanini’s arch-rival and victor is the battle for ‘best ever conductor’ stakes, the immortal Wilhelm Furtwangler.

If I listen to Bruckner’s 9th Symphony, I hear its meaning clearly enough: it is the testament of a man on the point of death offering his soul to God.

In Beethoven’s 9th, I hear the sonorities of every celebration of the human spirit from carnivale to requiem.

In Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro I can hear the riotous passage of every character and every element of the eternal, ineradicable comedie humaine, clattering down the streets of 18th century Vienna into our loungerooms.

In Bach’s Goldberg Variations I hear an exquisite musical argument of a precision and imagination that would baffle a regiment of scientific logicians. In his works for solo violin I hear something stupendous, sublime: the voice the Creature speaking back to the Creator.

And in Vivaldi’s ineffable cadences I hear the instinctive human love for harmony and invention. As we listen to his concertos, we hear the beating of our own hearts and the rush of our blood. That is why we love him and that is why the irascible Kenneth Hince, former music critic for The Age, was so hopelessly wrong when he wrote that every phrase Vivaldi wrote was a cliché before he even wrote it. What a tin-eared simpleton.

What on earth is there to defend or to apologise for?

Update: Actually, that’s a bit unfair to Kenneth Hince. He was a very fine music critic, but he had a couple of blind spots. Vivaldi, Brahms, Prokofiev….

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